On Sunday, the Kansas City Royals announced on Twitter their non-roster invitees to Spring Camp, which totals 21 players:
Granted, it’s been a freezing “hot stove” season for the Royals, even with the lockout. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Royals could not only add a player or two before their first Cactus League game on March 18th against the Texas Rangers.
Such roster additions (should they happen) could not only affect the NRI (non-roster invitee) list, but perhaps the Royals Cactus League roster as a whole, which was shared via various Royals beat reporters this afternoon:
While other Central division clubs like the White Sox and Twins have been wheeling and dealing the past couple of days (this is topic for a separate post), the Royals have stood pat. Thus, for now, Royals fans just have to assume that this Spring Training roster is the one that Dayton Moore and Mike Matheny will be dealing with in preparation for Opening Day on April 7th at Kauffman Stadium.
That being said, while the current Royals Spring Training roster doesn’t have a lot of eye-popping new names, there are some players who could surprise not just in Cactus League play, but in 2022 overall, should they get the opportunity at the big league level. This is especially true from the list of 21 non-roster invitees, who all will be fighting for a spot on the active 26-man roster over the next few weeks in Arizona.
In this post, I take a look at three non-roster invitees who could be sleepers to make the Opening Day roster, should they have solid campaigns in the Cactus League this March.
Foster Griffin, LHP
Griffin was formerly on the Royals’ active roster back in 2020, as he pitched 1.2 IP during the COVID-shortened 2020 season before injuring his arm and needing Tommy John surgery, which put him out for roughly a year in the process. Even though the Royals released him from the 40-man roster, he stayed in the Royals organization during his rehab process over the past two seasons.
Griffin’s 2021 season can mostly be seen as a rehab stint as he played at five different levels while making 15 starts and pitching 52 total innings. Griffin saw a majority of his work in Triple-A Omaha, as he made six starts and pitched 25 innings for the Storm Chasers, producing a 3.60 ERA in the process.
In his return to professional ball, he didn’t strike out many batters (6.84 K/9) and his K/BB ratio was a little lower than desired (1.90). However, he did post a groundball rate of 48.1 percent in Omaha, according to Fangraphs. That is a sign that he could fill in a role as a lefty reliever who could come in the middle of inning and get out of jams in a variety of ways, should he get a second shot in the Royals bullpen in 2022.
Furthermore, Griffin still showed a propensity to generate strikeouts, as he did post a K/9 of 9.24 and a K/BB ratio of 6.50 in 12.2 IP with the Naturals last season. Here’s an example of Griffin generating swings and misses in his brief stint in Northwest Arkansas in August:
Griffin was once a Top-10 prospect in the Royals system, so he certainly has pedigree, even if injuries have derailed him the past couple of seasons. I am not sure if Griffin will be a starter at the Major League level, as he doesn’t possess the kind of “strikeout” stuff to really last as a starter over a full 162 game season at the big league level.
However, the Royals lack left-handed options on the 40-man roster beyond Jake Brentz.
Richard Lovelady is expected to be out the entire season, and though Gabe Speier was better in his return to the Royals bullpen in 2021 (1.17 ERA), it was a small sample at 7.2 IP. It is certainly possible that he could regress to his 2019 and 2020 self, which was a 7.36 and 7.94 ERA pitcher.
Additionally, Griffin did show that he could handle MLB hitters in his brief stint, as evidenced by this strikeout of Detroit’s C.J. Cron in his one and only MLB appearance thus far in his career back in 2020:
Griffin doesn’t throw an elite fastball (it averaged 91.8 MPH in 2020), which will probably be a hurdle he’ll have to climb this Spring against Cactus League hitters.
On the other hand, he could be a nice left-handed arm in the Royals bullpen who could pair well with Brentz, who tends to throw his heater in the upper 90s.
Ivan Castillo, Utility Infielder
If there’s a type of player that the Royals front office loves, it’s a light-hitting utility infielder who can play multiple positions. In 2018, it was Rosell Herrera. In 2019, it was Chris Owings. Last season, it was Hanser Alberto.
Could this year’s version be Castillo in 2022, who was acquired this offseason by the Royals after he was non-tendered by the San Diego Padres?
Castillo doesn’t have much of a Major League track record, as he only played in three games and accumulated four plate appearances in his lone cup of coffee with San Diego a season ago. Castillo primarily played for El Paso, the Padres’ Triple-A organization, a season ago and put up a triple-slash of .287/.326/.366 with a .693 OPS in 113 games and 435 plate appearances.
The 26-year-old only hit three home runs, but he did accumulate four triples and stole 12 bases on 17 attempts. Thus, he does have some speed potential, in addition to a decent glove in the infield.
A lot of chips have to fall for Castillo to get a serious shot with the Royals, especially on Opening Day.
First off, there has to be an injury issue in the Royals infield for Castillo to get an opportunity, though with Adalberto Mondesi on the roster, that isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
Second, an infield roster spot on the 40-man roster has to clear in general, and unfortunately for Castillo, that is where the Royals have the most depth.
Not only do the Royals have Mondesi, Nicky Lopez, Whit Merrifield, Emmanuel Rivera, and Maikel Garcia on the 40-man roster, but Bobby Witt, Jr. and Clay Dungan are also at camp, and they are much more in favor with the organization than Castillo, who just joined the Royals this Winter.
Nonetheless, Castillo has an interesting toolset, and he doesn’t strike out much, which is not a bad skill to have, especially with big whiffers projected to be in the lineup such as Salvy, Hunter Dozier, and even Mondesi. Alberto was able to stay on the Royals roster the entire season in 2021 because he offered solid defensive versatility and excellent contact skills at the plate.
It’s not out of the question to think Castillo could find a similar role on this Royals roster, with some added speed on the basepaths to boot.
Brewer Hicklen, Outfielder
The Royals lucked out by the Rule 5 Draft not occurring, as they were able to keep some unprotected players who could have been selected, had the lockout not affected the annual December draft.
Brewer Hicklen is one of those players who could have gotten picked in the Rule 5.
Now Hicklen isn’t a player without flaws. He only hit .243 in 107 games and 424 plate appearances with the Northwest Arkansas Naturals a season ago. Furthermore, though he can draw a walk (12.3 walk rate in 2021), he has big swing and miss issues, as evidenced by his 31.1 K rate and 0.39 BB/K ratio in Double-A, both subpar marks.
However, there may not be a better athlete in the Royals system than Hicklen.
He stole 40 bases on 44 attempts in Northwest Arkansas in 2021 and in 2019 in High-A Wilmington, he stole 39 bases. Furthermore, he also hit 16 home runs a season ago in Northwest Arkansas, and it isn’t out of the question to think that Hicklen could be a 20 home run-30 stolen base threat in Triple-A Omaha in 2022.
And who knows what that profile could turn into at the Major League level.
At the very least, Hicklen could be a Brett Phillips type who could hit 10 home runs and steal 15-20 bases while playing excellent defense at all three outfield positions, should he get a full-time opportunity in the Royals outfield.
Additionally, much like Phillips, Hicklen is an easy guy to root for, as portrayed in Jared Perkins’ piece on Hicklen for Royals Farm Report:
Hicklen is a long shot to make the Royals Opening Day roster out of Spring Camp. However, the Royals lack center field options in the upper minors, as Dairon Blanco and JaCoby Jones are the only non-roster invitees who’ll be competing for a backup centerfield spot this Spring (Nate Eaton profiles more as a corner outfielder). Hicklen certainly has more upside than either of those guys, even though Blanco and Jones have more Triple-A and Major League experience, respectively.
The Royals have always seemed to like Hicklen, as he is a gamer who plays the game hard and uses his athleticism to his advantage (he was a two-sport star in high school who could’ve played QB at UAB, had they not suspended football operations when he arrived). A solid Cactus League campaign could put Hicklen on the Royals’ radar for the 2022 season, especially if something should happen to Michael A. Tyalor either injury or performance-wise.
Maybe Hicklen doesn’t make the Royals roster on Opening Day…
However, his tool set will be noticed by the Royals front office this Spring.
And if the Royals were willing to give Bubba Starling a shot (who was WAY less proven at the Minor League level than Hicklen), then it isn’t out of the question to think that Hicklen will get to make his MLB debut with the Royals at some point this season as well.
Photo Credit: Carlos Osorio/Associated Press